Did you know that Steve McQueen’s first screen performance was in the 1955 film, Family Affair, about the benefits of extension phones? Or that before George Wendt found fame as Norm on Cheers, he starred in a silent film called You Always Hurt the One You Love, about workplace safety? These are just a few of the tidbits I discovered this summer, when I took a break from my own projects to immerse myself in the treasures that are the AT&T Archives.
Starting in the late 1920s, AT&T produced hundreds of films on everything from telephone etiquette to the newest innovations from Bell Labs, the company’s research and development arm. Some of the films were shown to the public in venues such as movie theaters. Others were made to inform employees. Today, many are available for viewing online. I was hired to research the back stories of some of them and write scripts for “Bonus” introductions to be filmed at the AT&T Archives and History Center in Warren, New Jersey. The online host, George Kupczak, is the wizard who runs the archives, keeping track of more than one million documents, another million photographs, and 15,000 artifacts from the Bell System’s history.
During my three months at AT&T, I wrote about telephone service in early 20th-century Cuba, the cultural impact of party lines, the operators at World War II military telephone centers, and the introduction of modular plugs and jacks for telephones in the 1970s. I learned a great deal about telephone cables, specifically those laid from Florida to Cuba in 1921 and 1950, across Newfoundland during World War II, and from Washington State to Ketchikan, Alaska, in the 1950s. That cable to Alaska caused all sorts of problems. There were 1,600 miles of it, with the shortest piece measuring about 200 miles, and it had to be transported from the manufacturer in New Hampshire all the way to Seattle. The story of how that happened, involving a decommissioned Liberty ship rented for $385,000, is the focus of my Bonus script.
Indeed, I couldn’t help but notice that this was a company that often marshaled massive resources in the pursuit of progress. A case in point was the subject of another script I wrote, about the DEW Line, or Distant Early Warning Line. This chain of radar posts north of the Arctic Circle extended some 3,000 miles from Alaska through Canada. Built by AT&T’s Western Electric Company at the height of the Cold War, the DEW Line would give the U.S. and Canada four to six hours warning if the Soviet Union launched a bomber attack toward North America. Close to 5,000 Bell System employees spent months on end in the frozen north from 1955 to 1957, building ersatz towns as well as radar installations with help from the U.S. and Canadian militaries. The cost of the project was estimated to be as much as $1 billion.
As someone who often writes about more modest achievements, I was a bit awed by the scale of AT&T’s impact on the world. After all, this is the company that invented radar, as well as the transistor, the laser, the Telstar satellite, and so much more. It was beyond cool to be able to spend time in the archives researching various aspects of the company’s history and reading the letters and notebooks of those who made it happen. If you want a taste of that history, check out the Archives videos. My Bonus introductions are still in the editing bay, but there are plenty of others to look at right now.